In the midst of the opioid crisis, America has found itself downstream without a paddle, unable to swim against the raging current of fentanyl, and plummeting into the deadlier phase of this opioid epidemic.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid approved for treating severe pain, with a potency that is 50 to 100 times greater than morphine. As a fine powder, it’s easily mixable into other drugs and looks identical to heroin, so users injecting heroin laced fentanyl won’t know they’re injecting a lethal dose until it’s too late.
Over the past three years, fentanyl has taken the lives of music legends Prince (2016), Tom Petty (2017) and Mac Miller (2018). Its potency has been linked to New York City’s 55 percent spike in fatal drug overdoses from 2015 to 2017. As of earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security is even considering to designate this synthetic drug as a weapon of mass destruction.
Unintentional drug overdose deaths have climbed to a record high, claiming approximately 70,000 lives in 2017 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The New York Times reported that the recent increases in drug overdose deaths have been so steep that they have contributed to reductions in the country’s life expectancy over the last three years, a pattern unprecedented since World War II.
The lethality and the widespread nature of fentanyl is undeniable, for it is inching closer and closer to New Paltz. On Monday, April 8, marijuana confiscated in a Walmart parking lot by Sullivan County police tested positive for fentanyl. Three days later, in a separate incident in Albany County, first responders revived three people who had overdosed in a car in the middle of a road. Not two weeks later, police arrested three people in Kingston for the sale of heroin and fentanyl, concluding an ongoing investigation. This recent news left the people of Upstate New York with a sobering realization: fentanyl has made it into our neighborhood, and people don’t know when they are consuming it.
Fentanyl’s illegal version (usually sourced from China or Mexico) can be mixed into other illicit drugs like cocaine, Xanax and even marijuana. Drug users and street-level dealers often don’t know if the drugs are laced with fentanyl, since it’s added to the supply higher up on the distribution chain. Not only is this particularly disturbing, but it also means penalizing low-level dealers isn’t going to make any difference in halting this epidemic. With fentanyl branching out into America’s mainstream, recreational drug market, the opioid crisis has reached its second threat level.
We at The New Paltz Oracle are deeply disturbed by the dark reality surrounding the purity of drugs and fear for the well-being of our community. Overdoses no longer strictly pertain to extreme drug use, for young people who may just be experimenting with recreational drugs with their friends can potentially face death. Preventing people from using drugs is unrealistic, but promoting safe drug use is surely attainable.
The stigmas around drug culture in America have certainly not helped young people make smart decisions regarding drug use. The glamorized terms of poppin’ “percs,” sippin’ on “lean” and gobblin’ “xanny” bars coined by the music and TV industries have become embedded in American culture. With the media’s perpetual romanticizing of drug culture, the fentanyl poisoning crisis will only take more lives.
The increase in fentanyl’s existence and the absence of community-level educational outreach is appalling. According to Dr. Sarah Mars, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, drug users cannot make an informed choice about what they are buying because of the lack of accurate information about these drugs.
What makes fentanyl even more dangerous is that it tends to change frequently, making it easy for drug users to underestimate its strength. Different chemical versions of fentanyl with wildly varying potency, known as analogues, appear unpredictably in various locations in the country. Some analogues are so new that they have not yet been deemed illegal yet. Without proper research on fentanyl’s rapid evolution, we are left playing catch up as fentanyl sinks its teeth into more victims.
But why would drug dealers choose to lace their drugs with fentanyl if it’s causing so many unknowing users to overdose? While fentanyl is cheaper to produce than other opioids, increases a drug’s potency and gives a drug dealer an edge over their competitors, the full motives of wholesale suppliers still remain hidden. Researchers from University of California, San Francisco, say it may just be a matter of time before fentanyl takes over more of the illicit American and worldwide drug market.
We at The Oracle believe that there needs to be more research on wholesale suppliers’ motivations of lacing their drugs with fentanyl, and on the constantly changing blends of fentanyl. To fight back against unintentional overdoses, it is imperative to hold drug dealers accountable for their decisions and to promote education about the prevalence of fentanyl. As fentanyl circulates within 15 miles of New Paltz, there must be more awareness about the existence of fentanyl in both opioids and non-opioids, like cocaine, Xanax and marijuana.
Recently, SUNY New Paltz Chief of Police Mary Ritayik emailed the campus’ student body offering two ways to support the safety of community members. The Good Samaritan Law/Policy allows people to call 911 without fear of arrest if they are having an overdose that requires emergency medical attention, or if they witness another person overdosing. By removing impediments to seeking assistance, the policy’s purpose is to increase the likelihood that medical attention is provided to those who need it. Narcan training, which was offered on the SUNY New Paltz campus last Thursday, teaches participants how to administer Narcan to reduce the risk of an opiate/heroin overdose. While these two resources are beneficial for community members to harness, they merely provide prevention in the case of an already occurring overdose.
We believe that now more than ever there needs to be a greater focus on harm reduction through offering greater resources in the prevention of consuming fentanyl-laced drugs. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, this is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use, and a movement built on a belief in and respect for the rights of people who use drugs. The strategies currently suggested, like the Good Samaritan Law/Policy and Narcan training, are useful in combatting an overdose, but are only reactionary measures and do not target the root of the problem.
If police-grade drug testers are made as available as Narcan, drug users and street-level dealers alike would be able to test their drugs and know if they are laced with fentanyl, ultimately preventing an overdose. The legalization of marijuana would also bolster safety by holding growers and sellers to proper regulatory standards. Marijuana product testing is becoming a standard requirement for legalized marijuana markets, which means consumers are better informed about the marijuana they use, including its potency and proper dosage.
The insurgence of fentanyl into our communities has already pushed America further into the deadly depths of the opioid epidemic. But through fostering awareness about this synthetic drug, and by taking steps aimed at preventing the consumption of fentanyl, we as a country can paddle towards safer shores.